Public vote benefits green spaces

Recent parks funding in London may pave the way for similar schemes across the UK. Magda Ibrahim reports.

There is no doubt that mayor of London Boris Johnson is a politically astute man. By handing out £6m to 11 parks across the capital last week following a public vote, he ensured a significant boost to his credentials.

The mayor's Priority Parks programme saw months of positive PR for Johnson as 110,000 Londoners flocked to cast a vote for the park they felt was most deserving of the cash.

Political exercise aside, the big win was ultimately for the parks themselves. A total of 10 parks each received £400,000, with a huge £2m pot set aside for the Premier Park - Southwark's Burgess Park.

Johnson told HW the programme had been such a success that he was considering running it again, funds allowing. "This has been incredibly successful and we didn't expect it would generate so much public support," he revealed.

"If we can afford it then there are plans to run it again."

While Johnson has been keen to state that the £6m came primarily from savings made through scrapping previous mayor Ken Livingstone's newspaper, the success of the programme could mean he manages to find more money.

It has certainly pushed parks and green spaces up the political agenda and industry experts believe the scheme could spark similar funding in other cities and towns.

Parks consultant Sid Sullivan, who helped advise the mayor on which park should receive the £2m award, said there is considerable scope for the programme across the UK.

"I am a real enthusiast for this being done in other cities," he said. "Other city mayors ought to be looking at what the mayor of London has done, on a different scale maybe.

"The mayor of London has got more money than them, but I am sure they could find £500,000 to improve their local parks."

GreenSpace chief executive Paul Bramhill agreed: "Maybe other cities can't do this quite as easily, but you can imagine something like £500,000 making quite a difference. The number of people actually voting is a very good response and shows a strong desire from people to get involved."

While Johnson may have been surprised by the level of response to the programme, it simply clarifies the argument that many parks managers have been making for years: people want quality green spaces.

Bristol City Council parks manager Peter Wilkinson said that although the city doesn't have a mayor, he would be eager to see the programme implemented by other means.

"It would have to be delivered through a different political arrangement but anything that brings the public closer to some of the decisions on how money is spent is a great idea," he said.

In the initial stages of the competition, almost 100 green spaces were nominated for the cash. A total of 47 were shortlisted to receive the £400,000. For the larger £2m fund, experts visited each of six larger parks projects before advising the mayor on which space to choose.

"This is about the wisdom of the crowd," added Sullivan.

"It ties in with (Communities & Local Government secretary) Hazel Blears' latest proposals on participatory budgeting. It is terrific that people felt that motivated to get on and vote."

The fact that local people can influence decisions in this way resonates with the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames parks and open spaces service development manager Gaye Galvin. Galvin explained that in Richmond a partnership working with strong Friends groups has been invaluable to the success in gaining funding and pushing on with projects.

Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council countryside services manager Martin Hathaway agreed: "Giving the community a say in parks is essential.

"Any support is critical, whether it is the community coming on board, cross-party support or a single person."

The value, in political terms, of being seen to support local people is something that is not likely to go unnoticed.

At Burgess Park, former parks manager Jon Sheaff said the good feeling the win has generated has been infectious among local authority leaders.

"Everyone would like to have a bit of Burgess Park named after them, or be the party that gets it sorted out after so long," said Sheaff, who is now a director at Farrer Huxley Associates, the firm that came up with a strategy for the park.

"From a political reputation point of view, the council is very keen for it to happen, particularly with the elections coming up next year. There is a strong political message to this."

It seems to be a win-win situation for all. Parks get much-needed funding after years of shrinking budgets and the politicians get some good press.

Glasgow City Council parks, transport and environmental manager Kenny Boyle said: "The fact that the public is involved in the decision-making is very good. It can only increase the awareness of the value of green spaces and put the pressure on politicians for more money."

However, Boyle warned that the money must not come from existing parks budgets, but be found elsewhere.

For those London parks that did not win the public vote, the mayor has asked City Hall officers, including the Greater London Authority's senior biodiversity adviser and Priority Parks project leader Jan Hewlett, to provide advice on other grants and funding that could be available to them from other organisations.

"It is direct action and that is what people love," explained Bramhill. "It is a real political win. Given the response, this is something green-space managers could start to prompt their portfolio holders to put forward."

THE WINNERS
- Burgess Park, Southwark
- Lordship Recreation Ground, Haringey
- Dollis Valley Green Walk, Barnet
- Mayesbrook Park, Barking & Dagenham
- Fairlop Waters Country Park, Redbridge
- Brent River Park, Ealing
- Little Wormwood Scrubs, Kensington & Chelsea
- Parish Wood Park, Bexley
- Avery Hill Park, Greenwich
- Crane Riverside Park, Richmond & Hounslow
- Wandle Park, Croydon


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